“The Zookeeper’s Wife”: a story of resistance against Nazis seems timely now

The Zookeeper’s Wife”, directed by Niki Caro and written by Angela Workman, is another story of local resistance to Nazi occupation, and of the moral dilemmas people face when a foreign enemy knocks on the door.  Th film is based on the non-fiction book by Diane Ackerman.

As the film opens, Jan Zabiniski (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain) run the bucolic zoo in Warsaw in the late summer of 1939.  Antonina makes a great show of greeting visitors, and the animals have the run of their lives.  One night she interrupts a party to help an elephant deliver a baby (that is, bring the baby to life).

On September 1, 1939, the Nazi Blitzkrieg arrives with sudden aerial bombardment. Animals escape and the family has to prepare to endure.  But the Nazi zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) draws her into a discussion of saving the zoo by using it as a breeding farm.  Externally, there is a lot of talk about the Nazis as legitimate permanent political authority, that will persist “when the war is over”.

But soon the family’s Jewish friends take shelter in own their property, out of sight of the Nazis.  One of them has an insect collection, and kids draw “cave art” with fingerpainting in the basement.  The city is divided into “free” and ghetto.  Then the Jews are transported East and the ghetto is torched. Eventually the family secretly shelters over 300 people.

The film traces the family through all of World War II until the Soviets take over occupation after the end of the war.

The film may seem politically relevant today, as some faith-based groups resist the new anti-immigration crackdown by providing sanctuary to undocumented immigrants in the U,S.

I visited Warsaw for one day in May 1999, having ridden the train north from Krakow, where I had visited Auschwistz-Birkenau for one day.

The film was actually shot around Prague.

Warsaw today, Wiki.

Warsaw war ruins, Wiki.

Name:  “The Zookeeper’s Wife”
Director, writer:  Niki Caro
Released:  2017/3/30
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Common, sneak, late 2017/3/30, sparse attenance
Length:  124
Rating:  R
Companies:  Focus Features
Link:  official

(Picture: Washington DC zoo, lion area, Feb. 2017)

(Posted: Friday, March 31, 2017 at 11 AM EST)


“Land of Mine”: Allies treat German teenage prisoners of war as personally responsible for what Hitler made them do

Land of Mine”, as a title in English, is a pun; the original title of this film by Martin Zandvliet is “Under Sand” (“Unter dem Sand”  or “Under Sandet”) tells us more, that this is a movie centered around landmines buried “On the Beach”.

In May 1945, just about the time that German surrenders, Danish NCO Sgt, Carl Ramussen (Roland Moller) is tasked by Allied lieutenant Ebbe (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard) to supervise a task of captured German POW’s to low-crawl the beach and defuse every landmine with a careful procedure. The Germans had apparently expected D-Day on the Danish coast.

The prisoners are mostly teenage boys (they look young and physically vulnerable, even fungible) , and they are forced to work without food for a long time, and locked into their barracks a night, not even able to pee.  Ramussen says he is not their friend, and that he doesn’t care about them personally.

But what seems even more remarkable is that he talks as if he (and all the other Danes) hold the boys personally, each and every one, responsible for what the Germans (that is, Hitler) did. The treatment of the boys would violate the Geneva convention.

In time, there are casualties and death.  It’s horrible.  But the boys have maps, and one of the boys invents a tool to help find the mines faster.  The boys have been promised they can go home to Germany after they finish.

But when Ebbe returns, the Sergeant has finally started to have some empathy for the boys.  When Ebbe insists on keeping the survivors (after a horrible “accident” which may have been set up) the Sergeant has, for him, an unprecedented moral dilemma.

The film was nominated for best foreign language film at the Oscars.

Info Table:

Name:  “Land of Mine”
Director, writer:  Martin Zandvliet
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Cinema Arts Fairfax, 2017/3/11, afternoon, large audience (theater remodeled with reclining seats and digital projection)
Length:  100
Rating:  R
Companies:  Sony Pictures Classics
Link:  official

(Picture: Ocean City, MD, mine, 2010)

(Posted: Saturday, March 11, 2017 at 6:30 PM EST)

“No More Heroes”: Jordan Flaherty argues for mass movements and against individual right-sizing; saviors think they are better than the people they help

Remember how all the episodes of “Smallville” on WB started with Remy Zero’s song “save Me?”, back starting around 2001? (just before 9/11).  For years we were treated a cleancut extraterrestrial-born and alien but very attractively human teenager Clark Kent using his “powers” (manipulating space-time around himself as if he were an Alcubierre drive) to save people.  And except when influenced by red kryptonite, he was always a great person, almost Christ-like, an angel.  And he is European-white (although one of his best friends, in whom he first confided that he is an alien, as if he were “coming out”, is black).

Or, more recently, in 2012, I watch a short film video at a local church of teenager running a mission at Double Head Cabbage in Belize.  A tall blond high school teen, who looks like he could toss no-hitters now for the Washington Nationals, lets kids, mostly of color, climb all over him.  This is an experience in bonding with people who look “different’ from you and are maybe less fortunate, at least economically and with infrastructure.  The intimacy in the film is rather unprecedented.  It belongs in DC Shorts (a short film festival), I tell them.

Or, in September 2015, at a National Book Festival sponsored by the Smithsonian at the Washington DC Convention Center, journalist Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn present their books “A Path Appears” (also a video series) about how to help people, both in rural Appalachia and in Africa.  Kirtof also promotes a video, KONY, about a Ugandan warlord.

So now we have this book by Jordan Flaherty, “No More Heroes: Grassroots Challenges to the Savior Mentality”, challenging the whole premise of global do-goodism, that you can make your karma better by volunteering to help others, on your terms, when you get to look good and impress the people you help that you’re really better than them:  you’re richer (like Trump, or Zuckerberg, or Bill and Melinda Gates), whiter, taller, bigger, stronger, smarter, have a higher IQ, more gifted, more desirable.  You get to rule the world.  “They” do as you say.  Of course, you’ll be benevolent.  You’ll take care of everybody.  As Trump says now, everybody can buy insurance again, because I say so.  (I don’t think Trump had better try to deport real aliens.)

Flaherty loads up his book, especially the first eight chapters, with examples of self-serving “generosity”, going back to European colonialism and US manifest destiny, even the “we are the world” globalism of the 80s. He quickly gets to the topic of nearly mandatory volunteerism, as when (p. 25) he mentions George W. Bush’s call for every American to commit to two years, or 4000 clock hours during the rest of your life, to community service.  (I also remember Bush’s saying at Ohio State about that time, a person without responsibility for others is truly alone).   Some of his most telling examples center around New Orleans after Katrina (and even New York after Sandy), both with the ineffectiveness of hit-or-miss volunteer trips, and with the pretentiousness of Teach for America.  I was rather shocked at the degree to which teachers had to deal with the most intimate aspects of kids’ lives.

We tend to talk about “giving back” as something to get our karma right, become right-sized, and go back to feeling we individually “deserve” what we have.  It’s as if life was about getting a grade or accumulating non-monetary “life points” (a term killer James Holmes actually used).  Authoritarian politicians can easily take advantage of this idea.

In fact, consider Maoism in the 1960s. where Communist China forced intellectuals to “take their turns” becoming peasants.  I can remember those on the Left in the early 1970s (like the People’s Party of New Jersey) who used this example to argue that Chinese Communism was ideologically purer than Soviet style.

Flaherty wants us to realize that, as pastor Rick Warren argues in “The Purpose-Driven Life”, that it “isn’t about you.”  (He doesn’t mention Warren, but he should.)  It’s about your tribe, your team, well, no, its about the people, your mass movement.  He wants people to join up, become like Eric Hoffer’s True Believers. The mass movements will make things right for your group, especially if you’re among “people of color” or, less often, LGBTQ (or maybe both).

He traces the history of the Occupy movement (which Steven Bannon trashed in a 2012 film, reviewed here Jan. 9, “Occupy Unmasked”). He builds up Black Lives Matter (without mentioning the factual problems particularly with Michael Brown’s narrative that led to Ferguson) and takes the usual offense at “all lives matter” which is actually more demanding than it sounds.

Flaherty, when describing how to “change” (and shake off the moral liability if inherited privilege) says, “Instead of shaming people for their mistakes .. .appreciate and lift up principled action when you see it.” (Catalyst Poject).  Then, “This transformation demands moving from individual focus to collective action. Instead of asking ‘How can I be the single best white antiracist activist with the sharpest critique, most specialized language and busiest schedule?’ ask ‘How can I find ways to bring more and more people to social justice work, from lots of entry points, to grow vibrant mass movements?’” In other words, win converts, not just win arguments.  In fact, recruit people.  Pester them until the sign up. Well, there’s a contradiction in that, because that sounds like trying to save them.

I do recall a time at an MCC campfire in June 1979 in Texas when a particular guy into saving souls put his arm around me in a prayer and considered me one less able than others as someone special who needed saving.  Wow.

Clark Kent, in Smallville, used to say, I’m not special, I’m just different.  But Clark didn’t try to create a mass movement. But he didn’t need to.

Curiously, Flaherty poohs traditional efforts at gay equality, like gay marriage and the “right” to serve openly in the military (e.g. oppose “don’t ask don’t tell”) as accommodating “neoliberal violence”, by emphasizing individual station in life as the most important political objective.

But once the “people” get control with their mass movement, what kind of a world do they forge?  Without individual egos and meritocracy, people don’t accomplish much.  Flahety would have people surrendering all and living in moneyless or shared income intentional communities, maybe after a period of revolution, expropriation and collective moral purification.  It’s true that people who have the most to lose will take the fewest or smallest risks for changes that benefit others, but they may also take the least risks in stepping up in individual circumstances (as in Chapter 6 of my DADT-III book).  That’s the “Rich Young Ruler Problem”.

Author: Jordan Flaherty
Title, Subtitle: “No More Heroes: Grassroots Challenges to the Savior Mentality”
publication date: 2016
ISBN 978-1-84935-266-6
Publication: AK Press, Baltimore; 248 pages, paper (e), 11 Chapters, endnotes, indexed
Link:  author site

(Posted: Monday, January 16, 2017 at 11:45 PM EST)

“Labyrinth of Lies”: idealistic young prosecutor in 1958 brings “ordinary people” to justice in West Germany for having supported Nazis


Name: “Labyrinth of Lies”
Director, writer:  Giulio Ricciarelli
Released:  2014
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed: Netlix DVD
Length 124
Rating R   (language: German)
Companies: Sony Pictures Classics, Universal International,
Link: official

The German drama “Labyrinth of Lies” (“Im Labyrinth des Schweigens”), directed by Giulio Ricciarelli, and written with Elisabeth Bartel, shows how the pre-unification Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) got into the game of prosecuting “ordinary people” who had turned out to be complicit Nazi War criminals, after the Nuremberg trials.

The narrative is seen through a 28-year-old prosecutor, and handsome and perfect “Aryan” Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), who has attracted attention of a reporter for prosecuting ordinary traffic and misdemeanor cases vigorously.  He has at the same time wanted go to after a teacher who had been part of the SS and isn’t supposed to be allowed to teach, but authorities look the other way.  The reporter starts educating him on Auschwitz, which in 1958 still few Germans really understood.  He tries to learn about it at a public library, and finds that it will take eight weeks to get a book on the topic.  That’s how slow information flow could be four decades before the Internet (remember interlibrary loans?)

Gradually Radmann’s boss Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss – Bauer is the subject also of “The People v. Fritz Bauer”)) becomes more supportive, and Radmann becomes involved in the search for Josef Mengele and eventually Adolf Eichmann.  Along the way, at the film’s exact middle, he gets seduced by a seamstress. Marlene (Frederike Becht).  That leads him to a personal crisis, the discovery that his own father had been active with the Nazis. The film eventually ends with start of a trial of hundreds of former Auschwitz workers.

The film waterskiis over the question of whether ordinary citizens should be prosecuted for crimes they are ordered to commit by their leadership.

My own first visit to “West Germany” happened in the summer of 1972, when I arrived in Frankfurt.  The train to Hamburg came within sight distance of the East German border.  In those days, people stayed in hostels without private bathrooms when traveling.  I revisited in 1999, and visited Berlin and Dresden.

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Frankfurt skyline by Eli Beckman, CCSA International 4.0.

(Posted: Friday, September 30, 2016 at 11:15 AM EDT)